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  • Desire Work: ex-gay and Pentecostal masculinity in South Africa by Melissa Hackman
  • Siphiwe Dube (bio)
Melissa Hackman (2018) Desire Work: ex-gay and Pentecostal masculinity in South Africa. Durham: Duke University Press


In Desire Work, Melissa Hackman analyses multiple topics focused on Christian Masculinities, Gay Masculinities, and the Crisis in Masculinity within the context of post-apartheid South Africa. Hackman offers an insightful reading and invaluable history of the religiously oriented gay therapy of the centre where she conducted the bulk of her research in Cape Town, the Healing Revelation Ministries (HRM). The book presents experiences of ex-gay men, who are predominantly white, as they subject themselves to self-surveillance and accountability in pursuit of heterosexual masculinity, which they view as the ultimate goal of their desire work. These narratives, focused on key individuals of the HRM and presented as enmeshed in a matrix of a society suffering from a perceived crisis of masculinity, are framed very much by the discourse of a nation in decline. Hackman directly links the experiences of her ex-gay informants to the history of both American and South African Social Movements, struggles with identity politics, national concern with gender-based violence, race, sexuality, and religion. In this specific study, Hackman demonstrates how, in general, the individual concerns of men's movements are linked to concerns about 'the nation', thereby centring individual men's narratives of redemption as having greater purchase in the global discourses of redeeming 'the nation' currently prevalent.

The book is very accessible as a detailed story about HRM and gay reparative therapy in South Africa and locates the content of this detailed story within the broader global theoretical debates on sexualities and [End Page 220] masculinities. The focus on the spread of Pentecostalism in sub-Saharan Africa, including its attendant idea that individuals can transform themselves through working out their faith, forms fertile ground on which Hackman's book engages with HRM. This focus and engagement with the notion of Pentecostal self-transformation is best captured in Hackman's title of the book, Desire Work, which also forms a central concept of the book. According to Hackman, desire work refers to 'a process of emotional, bodily, and religious discipline and practices with the end goal of heterosexual marriage' (4). Specifically, for Hackman, 'Ex- gay men learned to understand their desire work as a daily practice, one that involved constant self-surveillance and emotional and physical toil on the self. It was a process of intense self-realization. A new self was only possible through entering into productive and active processes of desire work' (116-7). As such, the book paints a complex picture of Pentecostal masculinities and ex-gay movements as one that is filled with contradictions and unintended insights. This complex picture is deciphered over five chapters of the book, which together seek to provide and 'answer the questions of why and how ex-gay men sought to be heterosexual' (166).

In summary, the book is primarily concerned with moving away from the polarised approach of literature on the ex-gay movement and to answer questions about the process of being and becoming, as engaged by ex-gay men in their quest of achieving heterosexual masculinity. As Hackman puts it, 'In this book I do not seek to answer the question, does the ex-gay process work (other studies have shown that it has only limited success long- term). But rather I ask: How does it work? What techniques does the ex-gay movement employ to transform desire? Why do some men (mostly white and some coloured) in South Africa seek to alter their gender and sexual selves in the postapartheid period? And how do they define success for themselves?' (xi). In approaching the topic of ex-gay men in Pentecostal churches differently from the prevailing literature, Hackman highlights the specifically post-apartheid context of South Africa as particularly conducive for this movement.

For Hackman, the desire work of ex-gay Pentecostal white and coloured men in post-apartheid South Africa is reflective of a larger anxiety about the crisis of masculinity, which is perceived to have been brought on by the intersection of greater...


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pp. 220-227
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